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Why Are We Careless About the Experience of Teachers?


Dear Diane,

Columnists who write about education can display amazing chutzpah. How about this headline in the Boston Globe: “How Obama can fix education”? Of course, it’s also the editors of our “finest” newspapers who are to blame for this view of education as an appliance.

Or David Brooks, where we enter an Orwellian world in which the only serious “reformers” are those who offend teachers and their unions—and assume the worst about both. Thus Linda Darling-Hammond, after a lifetime of serious work at really cutting-edge, break-the-mold school reform in New York state and California, becomes a hack because her work is always respectful of teachers, students, and families! I guess Brooks would see me in that category, too, as though one can change the world by fundamentally disrespecting those who do its work. (I note that Brooks’ piece was followed by more of the same in other media outlets.)

I just got back from a 24-hour visit to Chicago for Tim Black’s 90th birthday. Tim goes back to my youth in Chicago and inspired my work as a political activist and high school teacher. Obama sent a moving letter about his influence on him, as well. It was a room full of black and white Chicago leaders, many quite “ordinary” in some senses, but all quite extraordinary. More about him another time. But what a contrast between his patient and steady efforts to change the world he lived in, in the very language he used in talking to others versus the way David Brooks describes the world. At 40 and at 90, Tim Black has always spoken with incredible care for how his words could affect his listeners. He echoes our reader Diane Seneschal's comments about the “discriminating” use of words. Of course, he did a lot of listening, too. I doubt if Brooks has spent much time hearing the voices of the teachers in our schools whose opinions he dismisses.

In contrast, Tim took to heart the idea that taking seriously our interests, as naïve young people, was the best way to prepare the stage for broadening our view. (Note: Ed Jones’ comment to my recent letter.)

Too many have bought into the idea—which the current crisis may undermine—that those who are fired (the losers) must be stupid, lazy, or incompetent and do not need or deserve protection. The ugly talk in The New York Post about the “rubber room” at Tweed where teachers threatened with disciplinary action (still innocent, mind you) spend day after day doing nothing under the watchful eyes of security police sent chills down my spine. A Teacher of the Year was quoted a few weeks ago saying, in response to a reporter’s question about tenure, that she’d never have survived as a teacher without it. It precedes unions, by the way. It’s a protection against unfairness by “bosses.” I have close and personal experience at how easy it is for supervisors to get rid of a tenured teacher they don’t get along with—if they are determined.

Consider how easy the average big-time columnists have found it to blame working people and unions for both our school problems and the auto industry’s (with its “unreasonably” high wages and benefits). In contrast, consider how we’re reminded to forgive and forget the mistakes in judgment and action of the financiers and economic experts who failed us on an even grander scale. The Dec. 5 issue of Commonweal magazine has a piece by William Pfaff noting that it wasn’t inevitable that we were kept in the dark. A lot of the deniers are now advising from the very top, because (as Obama noted in a recent press conference) who else has the experience to get us out—but those got us in?

So why are we so careless about throwing out the “experience” of teachers?


P.S. There’s a great book I missed in 2004 by a man who died right before it was published: Kenneth Sirotnik’s "Holding Accountability Accountable". His own short introductory chapter and his final concluding one should be must-reads for us all.


Is anyone really trying to "throw out" the experience of teachers? Or are we trying desperately to augment it?

I'd like to take you back to 1992. I'd like you to imagine that CERN, IBM, Intel, Northrop, TRW, AMD, Microsoft, Cisco, and the majority of electornics and software companies were all mandated by closed-shop, mandatory collective bargaining rules for their engineers. That in each of theses places, a 259 page contract governed (with help from hundreds of arbitration rulings and negotiated M.O.U.'s) each minute of the day, the time to be spent in each activity, the step process by which each person would be paid, regardless of talent or accomplishment, the exact hours of professional development, the long process by which each designer would be assigned additional tasks, the conditions under which a new person could be hired, the formal qualifications for each person.

Imagine, too, that the number of companies able to work in electronics was fixed. That no new entities could enter the field, save by approval of local boards.

Describe, then, the state of electronics, software, and the web in 2008 under this scenario.

Continuing with the theme of augmenting teacher's experiences:

Pick a school, preferably a really good one.

In this school, how many people are even moderately (journeyman level) expert in Dentistry? Pharmacy? Manufacturing? Distribution? National security?

How many have started and run a profitable business? Published a self-supporting publication? Built a skyscraper, bridge, space station, landfill, park, accounting system, amusement park, national non-profit?

Have any managed the marketing for a world-wide brand? Surveyed a tract of land? Maintained a jet engine? Monitored an electrical grid? Prepared a capital budget for a state university?


Most of these things require an accumulated store of knowledge. The broader and deeper the better.

If you would, please describe how a teacher-student determined curriculum, with no outside intervention (remembering the educational experiences of the average US teacher) are going to produce more of all the above workers, from places like east St. Louis, New Orleans, DC, Cleveland, Detroit.

Wow! Powerful stuff Deb. Thank you for coming out the Chicago and sharing Tim Black's birthday will all of us. We enjoyed seeing the two of you together and we especially enjoyed Barack Obama's homage to Tim, which your readers can see here:


I couldn't imagine our current leader saying such things. Can you?

Perhaps we are careless about the experience of teachers because we all think we are experienced. After all, most of us spend at least 13 years on our own in schools, and then experience it again for another 13 or more years through our children. This creates a wealth of experience which easily leads to illusions of expertise. Such expertise in turn often reappears in "the public square" as anecdote and argument. Few other professions have a similar tension built into their enterprise.

I think the DOE's rubber room is the Guantanamo Bay of NYC.
Brooks' column was atrocious; thank goodness they published Darling-Hammond's letter in today's paper.
I'm glad to hear of others celebrating the wisdom and quiet heroism of our elders as you described in the festivities for Tim Black. I recently attended the memorial service for someone precious we just lost right before the election, Studs Terkel. Howard Zinn reminded us that Studs' great gift was his optimistic belief in the goodness of people, enough to change the world (see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/08/books/08terkel.html?scp=2&sq=studs%20terkel&st=cse).


Your story of Professor Black reminds me obliquely of a party I attended some 17 years ago at the home of an 84-year-old history professor who had fought the Italian Fascists during World War II. Within minutes of meeting him, I wanted to listen to him as much as I could. He spoke with care and joy.

At one point a journalist struck up a conversation with him. The professor mentioned something about his experience in the Resistance. The journalist erupted, "This is a great story! You must write this down!"

"I have no time," said the professor, who had written many books.

"But we cannot lose this! I can interview you... we can record it..."

"The problem with recordings," said the professor, with a musical trill of the "r," "is that they usually come out wrong!" There was a lilt in his voice when he came to "wrong!"

I remember listening to them and seeing the journalist's idea ("we must capture this") in contrast with the professor's idea ("we cannot capture this no matter how we try"). I knew the professor was right, though I sympathized with the journalist's desire. I never saw the professor again; he died eight months later. But I have thought back often on that day, and I still hear the word "wrong" the way he said it then.

Maybe the contrast between this professor and the zealous journalist can be compared in some way (though not in all ways by any means) to the contrast you describe between Black and Brooks. It is in part the contrast between grappling with the truth over time and trying to nail it prematurely. There's much more to it than that, of course, but that's a sliver.

It seems Brooks wants to nail the education world by dividing it into "reformers" and "establishment." Of course such terms break down when one talks to people like teachers.

Diana Senechal

P.S. I do not mean the above as a comment on the academic and journalistic professions. There are professors who cling to limited theories, and journalists who pursue truth no matter how elusive it may be.

In his comment above Tony Waters reminds us that we teach as we were taught. Often when we observe that, we think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s basically a good thing because good practices evolve. One could also argue that bad practices evolve, and certainly that’s a possibility. But from where I sit it does seem that many more bad practices come from ed schools than come from the drift of conventional practice.

But either way, we ought to know what we are doing. Following custom and common sense shouldn’t preclude carefully analyzing what we are doing.

If you are interested in having a Secretary of Education who has a proven track record of thoughtful research and writing on education and school improvement, who is respected widely by educators and researchers alike for her knowledge of critical issues in education and her strong advocacy for meaningful reform, consider signing this petition for President-elect Obama to appoint Linda Darling-Hammond Secretary of Education:

I agree that it seems as though we are careless about the experience of teachers. We do go through life adding on to what we know and experiencing new things, but is it enough? Many people come straight out of college and get jobs teaching, but maybe they need more before they can start out into their fields.

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